The silent team

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A couple of years ago I worked for SPP, an old Swedish insurance company, hired as an Agile coach to support their transformation to a digital and Agile company. It took me nine months until the same manager who hired me, and also had become my friend travelling with me on a private football trip, escorted me out the door while my team hid behind their screens without saying goodbye or even looking at me. This is the story of a silent culture that grew unbearable for me, so I stepped over the line and did something I am ashamed of, but instead of hiding it I talk about it for the sake of Psychological Safety.

The first six months were great, and I got my contract extended for six more months. But then we started talking about scaling Agile and how to do it. As always, I said my meaning that we were too small to go down this road and instead should focus on improvement of the team, before scaling. My closest manager (not the one who hired me) was a first-year student on the Agile topic and listened for a start very much to my advice. But when she hired two new Agile coaches, both from the same company, my word was not of value anymore. The two new Agile coaches had recently been certified in an Agile framework and boldly promised that we would become Agile within six months if we only did it their way. My friend was eager to learn this framework as he saw his career here, so it was me against these four people in the discussions on how to work with the framework – or not. I lost big and hard and was voted down in every discussion, so I planned for my exit before the end of my contract. My friend, I and the two new coaches formed a team with a backlog and started to use framework words like PI-planning, release train and RTE, but I kept using the old words like big room planning, release and scrum of scrums. The clash was downright total between the old and the new school.

On a night out with my friend and two others from our team, we discussed the Psychological Safety climate at the company. Both the other two had been accused of bad performance at work and were hanging loose internally. So, with beer down, truth came out even from my friend, who told us this was nothing to be concerned about, as it was in the company’s culture to cannibalise each other. ‘One’s misery = my luck’. Soon we were all to be history at this company, but it is interesting how people speak when they are out of office, and after a few drinks. It opened my eyes that this company was not as perfect as we all thought it was. The fear was in the atmosphere, emanating from powerful people. I didn’t touch the framework parts but volunteered to take on the challenge to educate the new product owners needed, so they would have skills and a backlog for their planning. This plan was agreed within our team, and I was chosen for the execution of it. But when I performed the education of the product owners our solution backfired. The POs were overwhelmed by the effort needed and turned to my manager with complaints about me being too offensive. Meanwhile my team was hiding, watching me being sent to the lions and letting me take all the heat despite our plan agreement.

Now my manager had a cause for ending my contract, so she did. I was about to leave within one month and hand over my tasks, but I wanted out right away, so I started to be a bad collaborator. We had a chat tool for discussions, and I unsubscribed from that. I didn’t answer emails but showed up physically in every meeting I was invited to, but my body language showed clearly that I wanted out. So, I got escorted out by my friend, which I think was a statement from my manager to show that she was the boss. That is OK from a Boss but could be done better by a Leader. I looked at my team for a nod, or just a thumbs up when I packed my things. But they were looking down behind their big screens.  I am not proud of being fired like this, but it is an important lesson learned i want to tell. So ever since that non pleasant exit I always do my best in every assignment, even when I’m ’history’, and the last day I make sure to get a respectful goodbye and sometimes even a word of appreciation.

Five years later I met my friend when we worked together for another company, and he told me he was sorry for what happened before, but said he had only obeyed instructions. I told him I was sorry too for my low energy at the end. I would later use this story when I made a speech for another company on the topic of Psychological Safety, with an ambition to expose my weakness and inspire other people to do the same. At the end of the speech, I addressed my friend with a question and we both laughed at it all. My manager at that company was not so amused and brought this up on my last day as a reason for letting me go instead of prolonging my contract. Being true to Psychological Safety comes with trouble!

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.